This article will explain how to wax a car to achieve the best shine and protection. If you need information about the best car wax to use — based on the needs of both you and your automobile — see our Car Wax Buyer’s Guide.
It used to be that you’d simply wash and dry your car, then pull out a can of Simonize (or other favorite cleaner/wax) to restore shine and wax protection. Car paint finishes, and our busy way of living, have changed and good car care habits have changed accordingly.
Today there are hundreds of car wax product choices, but they all boil down to:
- Liquid Wax
- Paste Wax
- Spray Wax
- Wipe-on, Walk Away Clear Sealant
The car wax you choose is really a lifestyle choice. As funny as that sounds, it’s true. For car enthusiasts, the pursuit of car appearance perfection will lead them to a multi-step, all-day, car pampering process. This might seem extreme for some, but it’s pure enjoyment for car lovers.
At the others end or the spectrum are car owners who wish to care for their vehicle, but their time is precious. For these people, a fast and easy solution is ideal. Interestingly, car wax products have evolved to the extent that both extremes of the car care scale are satisfied with nearly the same process. Let’s explore.
START WITH A SQUEAKY CLEAN FINISH
The reason Simonize and Turtle Wax paste waxes were so popular a few decades ago is because they were a single-step paint cleaner and car wax in one (e.g., “cleaner/wax”). Today we have more choices, and the best choice of all is to clean your car’s paint before waxing with a clay bar.
Clay bar detailing is a quick and easy process of removing bonded dirt and other contamination with a simple bar of detailing clay. You use it after washing your car to remove all loose dirt. The result is a squeaky clean paint finish that’s as smooth as glass. For complete instructions, see our complete Clay Bar Detailing guide.
CLEANER/WAX vs. CLAY BAR + NON-CLEANER WAX
Modern clearcoat paint finishes (most cars made since the year 2000 have a clearcoat finish) are much different than traditional paint systems without a clearcoat. The significant issue is that they are thinner to conserve weight (and our environment) and reduce cost. As a result, the use of abrasive cleaners and polishes for regular care is not advisable.
The safe alternative to a cleaner wax is detailing clay followed by your favorite non-cleaner wax (pure wax). You can determine if a wax is a cleaner/wax or a pure wax by reading the label. If the product claims to “clean” or “polish” then it is a cleaner/wax.
POLISH TO REMOVE DEFECTS… BEFORE YOU WAX!
The time to use an abrasive on your vehicle’s paint is when you have fine defects that need to be removed. Many people mistakenly believe that waxing will fix minor blemishes, but it won’t. Waxing may temporarily cover-up some blemishes, but it will not make them go away.
By blemishes I’m talking about fine scratches, swirl marks, water spot etching and stains or burns from bird dropping. To solve these problems you must use an abrasive car polish. If your car’s paint needs reconditioning, do it before you apply the car wax.
APPLYING AUTOMOTIVE SPRAY WAX
Automotive spray waxes are the easiest paint protection products to apply. A few years ago spray wax products were a joke, but today they rival some of the best liquid and past wax products. What changed? In a word, polymers!
Polymer coating technology is getting so good that a product like Meguiar’s Ultimate Quik Wax offers the same level of protection as the original formula Meguiar’s NXT Generation Tech Wax that hit the market a few years ago. Best of all, you can apply the best-of-breed spray wax products is a matter of minutes. Many of them can be applied in direct sunlight, although best results are always achieved in the shade.
To apply a spray wax thoroughly wash and dry your car. With a microfiber buffing towel in one hand and your spray wax in the other, spray and wipe a small area at a time. Distribute evenly, then flip the towel to a dry side for a final buff. It’s that easy.
APPLYING LIQUID & PASTE WAXES
In the past, paste waxes were preferred because they offered great results. Nowadays, many manufactures offer liquid and paste versions of the same car wax formula. So, what’s the difference? It’s all up to your personal preference and method of application. Many people find paste waxes easier to apply by hand, whereas a liquid wax is necessary for machine application.
For both liquid and paste waxes, a basic rule applies: less is better. With modern polymer waxes, it’s not necessary to slather on a heavy coating. A thin coat dries faster and wipes off easier.
For all liquid and paste wax products, follow these basic instructions:
- Work in a shaded area out of direct sunlight.
- Use the applicator recommended or provided by the manufacture. If the manufacturer does not make a recommendation, use a foam applicator pad to apply your wax.
- Work on one area at a time covering 2 to 4 square feet. Some products may allow you to coat the entire car before buffing off, but most do not.
- Follow the wax manufacturer’s instructions on whether or not to allow the wax to dry (haze) before buffing.
- Use a small amount of wax at a time, and rub it in well. If you use too much wax, you’re wasting the product and your time.
- If the wax residue does not buff off easily, switch to a clean wipe towel.
- Apply your wax in a back-and-forth motion, not in circles. If you are creating swirls, you need to replace your applicator or towels.
After waxing, your car’s paint should feel slick and smooth, and be free of streaks and smudges.
What do you do if, after all this work, you still have streaks and areas that don’t want to buff out perfectly? There are several tricks, but the easiest is to park your car in the sun for 10 to 15 minutes. Let it get warm, but not hot, and then take it back inside the garage. Next, use your favorite detail spray a fresh buffing towel to wipe down the affected areas. The warmth of the sun softens the wax, allowing it to buff out to a clear, high gloss. If you’re using an enthusiast sealant system, use the quick detailer made for the system.
Show Car Wax Tricks
Detailers who prepare show cars will often layer a carnauba wax on top of a synthetic wax. The synthetic wax acts as a gloss layer, while the carnauba wax adds depth and a wet-looking appearance. One combination that works well is an initial coating of Klasse All-In-One Car Polish followed by one or more coats of P21S Carnauba Wax. Because of its superior coating capabilities, I find that multiple coats of the Optimum Opti-Seal product creates a dazzling final finish.
When layering products for show, apply and buff the first coat of wax as you would normally, and allow it to cure for 12 to 24 hours before applying a second coat. Note that the first coat of wax must have time to cure. If the wax does not cure (harden), the second coat will not improve your car’s appearance or protection. With properly applied coats of wax, you will see a noticeable improvement in depth, richness of color and gloss.
APPLYING CLEAR SEALANTS
The new breed of clear sealants made by Zaino, Ultima Finish Care and Optimum Polymer Technologies have a completely new method of application that is foreign to most car owners. You literally wipe the clear sealant on, then walk away and allow it to dry. When the paint sealant finishes drying it will be as gloss as it is going to be without buffing or wiping, and the surface has the best protection possible.
All three of the clear sealant formulas seem to be nearly identical, yet each manufacture recommends a slightly different application method. After a couple years experimenting with all three products, I recommend using a large microfiber applicator. It seems to be the best way to apply an even coating.
The clear sealants can be applied to paint, glass, chrome and plastic trim. The most important thing is to apply an even coating and then leave it alone. Do not wipe after application. Simply allow the sealant to dry (20-30 minutes).
These products are known to last up to a year, but for best protection you should apply them twice a year. If you do not garage your vehicle, I recommend applying your clear sealant each season.
CAR WAX SUMMARY
Regular waxing is necessary to protect your car’s paint from the elements. In addition to sealing and protecting, waxes and sealants also improve the appearance of freshly washed and polished paint. If you use the right products, you can successfully layer waxes and sealants to make your paint look deeper and almost liquid.
Once your car is waxed, it’s time to move on to Car Interior Cleaning!